BRIGHAM CITY — When 88-year-old Brigham City resident Doris Fripp put a 20-year lien on her home to get hooked up to UTOPIA fiber-optic service, she thought she was signing a petition in support of the municipal telecommunications network.
Not until it was too late did Fripp learn that her signature would cost her more than $20 a month for two decades and that she'd still have to pay fees for phone, data and video service.
"I'm really quite upset about having this," she said, explaining that she could soon have to sell her property to move into assisted living. "It's ridiculous."
In defense of Fripp and about 70 others like her, the Utah Taxpayers Association is threatening to sue UTOPIA and Brigham City, saying widespread misinformation and lack of a public hearing amounts to a violation of due process.
But UTOPIA Chief Executive Todd Marriott says the association itself could be in legal trouble. Calling its members liars and charlatans, Marriott pointed out that the association is funded by Qwest and Comcast — commercial competitors in the field of broadband Internet access. The association admits that the telecommunications companies belong to the nonprofit organization but has refused to make public their funding sources.
Brigham City also is taking aim at the nonprofit organization led by Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper. City officials sent a letter to potential lien holders about a month before the withdrawal deadline that clearly spells out the financing deal. They also held several meetings on the issue and talked with reporters from local and state newspapers before the deal was finalized Dec. 10.
"There is no possible way you can say that there was any fee covered up," said Marriott, explaining that the process took six months. "The people who still misunderstood weren't paying attention."
Fripp was among about 1,600 city residents who signed up for UTOPIA access over the summer. Some accepted the city's financing plan, while about 20 percent chose to pay the $3,000 fee up front.
Between the cutoff date for withdrawal and the Brigham City Council vote finalizing the $4.8 million bond, the Utah Taxpayers Association sent "Stop Utopia" postcards to city residents, saying the fiber-optic company was "lien-ing" on taxpayers. The mailer called for residents to show up at the Dec. 10 meeting, even though the opportunity for public comment had passed.
"The association couldn't believe people who had been given full-disclosure would have signed up for it," said Royce Van Tassell, the organization's vice president. "We didn't know this was even a possibility."
The council passed the bond 4-1 but not before the Utah Taxpayers Association put together a petition of about 70 people asking to be let out of the lien. Since then, criticism of UTOPIA has run rampant, with newspaper editorials across the state suggesting that the fiber-optic company should cut its losses and get out of private industry.
But that perspective ignores the more than 1,500 people who are thrilled with the opportunity to connect fiber-optic cables directly to their homes, Marriott said.
"This is remarkable. This has never happened before where people step up and purchase this kind of infrastructure for their home," he said. "The network up there will be owned by Brigham City people."
Marriott also said that customers whose homes were hooked up before the lien was available are paying the hookup cost through their monthly bills to service providers such as resident Ken Sutton's Brigham.net.
As a provider, Sutton said he visited homes with four different UTOPIA salespeople. Each explained the lien process clearly, he said.
Marriott, too, visited homes alongside salespeople and even took it upon himself to visit customers whose names ended up on the Utah Taxpayers Association's petition.
Brigham City Mayor LouAnn Christensen said most people in the city are happy with the deal, especially those whose homes will be connected to lightning-fast broadband in coming months.
"We are truly in a remarkable position in terms of setting ourselves up for the future," Christensen said. "Mostly what I'm hearing is people that are excited about the opportunity that this will bring for their city and their home."
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